Ian’s Letter from America

The preamble

flagsFor a large part of my formative years Alistair Cookes weekly ‘Letter from America’  was a staple in my growing awareness and fascination of what was going on in the world and through his erudite, calming voice I had a window into the American psyche. Just today re-listening to one of his broadcasts on The Supreme Court 4 Jul 1980 brings back to me the power of his insight and vast encyclopedic knowledge of what it is to be American.  I wonder how he would interpret the current America of the Trump presidency. 

resistIn my preparations to go to New England I had resolved myself not to bring up the Trump subject in case I inadvertently caused a faux pas to one of my hosts.  As it transpired the general bewilderment at what Trump represents in campus America reverberates and manifests itself though a hundred different subtle and not so subtle references.  From the slogans to resist autocracy on a wall in MIT (see insert) to the impacts on “Black lives matter” in conversations at Harvard and the impact on delivering modern leadership techniques (at Yale) when transparently doing the opposite can reward you in getting elected to the presidency.

The purpose of my trip

managiingThe purpose of my visit to America was born out of curiosity and to address a key conundrum within OCSLD as we constantly evolve as a unit.  As Staff and Organisational Development Consultants how do we manage exponentially increasing demand for our services set against being a finite resource?

The rationale for the visit was to compare and contrast a similar size group of staff and organisational development consultants in the US posing the following questions

  • How do you  
    • manage and prioritise your workload?
    • manage the expectations of your key stakeholder groupings?
  • What process or methodologies or modus operandi are used to
    • engage and determine client needs
    • decide on what work is commissioned (and importantly what is not)
    • if an intervention is to be declined how is this explained(rationalised) to the client?
    • plan out consultant’s resource time and availability over the year

Santander Scholarship fund

Every year Santander generously offer grants to support staff at Oxford Brooke to enable them to visit universities abroad for their personal development. For Brookes staff reading this blog see here for more details.  

Observation 1:  Learning & Development /Organisational Development (L&D/OD) units at US institutions

During my preliminary investigations I was struck by how scarce L&D/OD units seemed to be within US universities. Some institutions relied purely on their general HR capacity to provide L&D/OD functionality.

It appeared (if only superficially) that for a few institutions the only visible form of staff development came in the shape of Lynda.com (a ubiquitous must have at all Universities). When I subsequently shared my observation with Meredith Fahey at Yale, she proffered that where L&D/OD units existed these were the consequence of proactive patronage by an institution’s President (equivalent to Vice Chancellor). So finding comparable units to visit was limited by their scarcity together with what was geographically feasible to visit within a week.  

I was very fortunate that my very speculative emails resonated with fellow colleagues at

  • Harvard University, Center for Workplace Development, Employee & Organization Development
  • MIT, Organisation and Talent Development
  • Yale University, Organizational Effectiveness and Staff Development

Observation 2: Do we operate in similar HE environments

As a precursor to the visit I was mindful that the distinctive university culture which we operate in the UK may differ and so impact on the questions I was asking.             

In exploratory mode I sent a summary of  Professor Gus Pennington’s (2003) pointers in understanding the features of a university culture being  


Pennington, G (2003) “Guidelines for Promoting & Facilitating Change”, The Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre


  • the sector’s general commitment to collegiality
  • fuzzy lines of accountability, particularly for academic staff
  • a general lack of extrinsic rewards to shape behaviour
  • well developed subject sub-cultures
  • the ability to influence is as important as the authority to control
  • “managing tends to be by consent and incrementalism
  • decisions tend to be committee-based and generally consensual
  • the status of potential change agents is often derived from personal credibility and their standing
  • high value is placed on dialogue and the legitimacy of critique.”

All three hosts indicated a US resonance with these cultural features.

One of the key differences between my host institutions and Oxford Brookes was the centricity the student experience plays in their decision making. The US with its long association with tuition fees has not witnessed the same abrupt change in the student psychological contract currently being experienced in the UK (with the introduction of capped student fees capped). However concerns in the US continue to consolidate with regard to the affordability of an expensive education and the spectre of a lifetime of “crippling” debt. Akin to many in the UK’s Russell Group, the position of the Faculty and its research are predominant in decision making with student experience coming further down the consideration list.

Observation 3: Drive to better identify/clarify client needs, root cause analysis and discouraging the disorganised (knee jerk) last minute interventions.

In all our units there is a desire to ensure our limited resource time is used to optimum efficiency. On reflection what this entails is a requirement to put in place mechanisms which enable us to proactively manage client expectations. These include

  • torHaving strategic input into where to add value in a division’s operational plans. By building client relationships which enable early insight to their plans, internal consultants can précis key development interventions to support the realisations of those plans.
  • Adopting a Terms of Reference approach to key initiatives. Employing a Terms of Reference (see insert) approach for key interventions acts as an initial brake slowing down the request to enable it to be assessed in its entirety. It is at this stage that often the root cause of an issue emerges and can be addressed. Using this approach also has the added benefit   of trying to quantify resource effort required which is particularly useful in planning availability and managing situations when the scope of the initiative starts to change.
  • Having a prioritisation methodology to review initiatives. At Yale determining which initiatives to take on would involve a simple methodology involving considerations linked to 1/ Visibility 2/ Value for money or as quoted “bang for bucks” 3/ Institutional risk 4/ Compliance requirements 5/ Potential to grow.  To this I would be minded to add strategic importance, effort factor and deadline factor.
  • Discouraging the disorganised (knee jerk) last minute interventions. One of the bane of all our lives was reacting to the disorganised last minute manager. The request for a team building event with just two weeks notice. By having laid down lead-in times (identified in months) and protocols for prioritising requests enables us to manage client expectations.  

The impact of adopting a more robust and bespoked consideration in determining a development solution is that the ratio of no-of-deliverables-formulasees a reduction in the number of deliverables in a year. However this should be adequately offset against a more satisfactory outcome in supporting the client’s goals and objectives.  

Observation 4: Emerging trends learning through work day problem based issues

Where I saw the biggest divergence between OCSLD and US counterparts was in our approach to designing facilitated team interventions integrating directly into real life problem based issues.  


We are increasingly designing learning interventions which bring together groups of people to support them through change (examples being the Participative Process Reviews, Course Design Intensives, Change support workshops and others).


Moving away from using case studies to learning through live work issues.  This does involve a shift from learning delivery mode (structured content delivery) to learning facilitator mode (looser and more fluid in structure). This interestingly realigns itself to the rise in popularity of the 70:20:10 framework which advocates that circa 70% of our learning (with the highest realised value) comes from challenging assignments and on the job experiences.

See https://702010institute.com/resources/ for more information.

Observation 5: Ensuring people management competences are paramount in a manager’s role specification.


My next observation for this blog related to the consequential issues related to the absence of  substantial people management capabilities in manager’s role specifications. In one institution a manager’s job and person specification was often characterised with one bullet point acknowledging the need to line manage people. Consequently managers are often recruited to post with varying degrees of aptitude in regard to managing people. The response was to provide a 3 day universal manager training module to all 4,000 managers.

What this re-emphasised to me was the need to

A/ have robust people management competences incorporated into mangers person specifications to aid the selection process to ensure managers had the aptitude to manage people and

B/ alternative progression routes  for non management roles to recognise and reward specialist capabilities.

Observation 6: Leadership programme accolade


It has to be one of the most impressive leadership programmes I have ever encountered. I met with Margaret Ann Gray who was the catalyst for the programme. What was most impressive about the programme was the high value status associated with it by everyone at MIT.  With 9 cohorts since its launch in 2002 the programme has been elevated into almost mythical proportions where to be selected as participant is a cherished accolade whilst all senior management at MIT want to have a part in its delivery.  Over the years the cohorts have added new dimensions into its own distinctive culture, for example they elect to meet at different and unusual locations around MIT including dorm blocks.


“L2L’s main purpose is to ensure the stewardship of MIT, its mission and values. The L2L program, built to reflect MIT’s unique culture, rests on three tracks: workshops, individual development plans, and applied learning. Its strategy is to develop flexible, creative leaders who anticipate and proactively

manage mission-focused change at the Institute. One major benefit of L2L is the deep bonds created among the L2L Fellows who then serve as cross-functional sounding boards and advisors to each other. And, finally, this initiative is one way MIT is bridging the gap that so often occurs in universities between the academy and the administration”.(Extract from MIT’s Leader to Leader: Building Leadership Capacity By Margaret Ann Gray).


One of the particular things that stood out for me was the care and attention taken in ensuring that each cohort had a diverse mix of candidates.  Entombed in a room the high powered selection committee, each with their supersized Arch lever file spend considerable time moving names on post its from one wall to the next until they arrive at  their final selection. Such diligence provides an insight as to how much the programme is valued.  


For an insight into the programme go to http://hrweb.mit.edu/l2l


Departure notes


I have provided a few insights from my fascinating scholarship trip to the US. For those interested in exploring more about how do we manage exponentially increasing demand for our services set against being a finite resource, I shall be delivering a session at this years Staff Development Forum Conference (Birmingham Nov 2017).


Meanwhile I am indebted to my hosts and all their colleagues at Harvard, MIT and Yale.   

  • Margie Naddaff, Director, Harvard University, Center for Workplace Development, Employee & Organization Development
  • Scott Rolph, Organization Development Consultant, MIT, Organisation and Talent Development
  • Meredith Fahey,  Associate Director Yale University, Organizational Effectiveness and Staff Development


Thank you




About the author

Ian Whiting

Ian is a learning and development practitioner experienced in delivering new initiatives into a variety of industry sectors, applying well-honed consultancy skills, project management rigour and general pragmatism. Industry sectors include high-tech engineering (European Aeronautical Defence and Space Company EADS), airlines (British Airways), hotels (Inter-Continental Hotels) data marketing (Claritas), maritime (Sea Containers), Travel (Trailfinders) and multi media contact centres (iSKY Europe). This is combined with experience in organisational development and HR.

At Oxford Brookes, Ian’s interests have led to the development of a variety of business desired target culture (PDF) including the very popular project management programme, introduction to consultancy skills, facilitating change, negotiation skills and the newly introduced participative process reviews. Acting as an internal consultant within the University Ian works with his link areas on a variety of bespoke initiatives aligned to business operational plans, examples include developing a coaching culture and more recently carrying out an all inclusive staff initiative to define their desired target culture which is now a central point of reference to how the Directorate operates.

Practicing what he teaches has seen Ian being seconded to the Senior Management Team here at Oxford Brookes to oversee the implementation of key University initiatives. In 2010/11 Ian was appointed Project Manager overseeing the largest restructure project ever undertaken within the University. In 2012/13 Ian was tasked with setting up and programme managing the “Programme for Enhancing the Student Experience” (PESE) consisting of 12 key University wide projects. In 2013/14 Ian initiated the University’s Virtual Project Office (plus) to provide a range of services to support a co-ordinated approach to project management.

Ian has an MA in Human Resource Management, is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, ILM Certificated Coach and an MBTI practitioner.

Ian also represents OCSLD on the Midland Staff Development Partnership panel and is the key University contact for the Association of Project Management (APM).

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